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Insights on Core Identity

Recently I've been doing some sleuthing in the philanthropic wetlands. I'm seeking out people who are challenging conventional ideas about philanthropy in ways that are hyper-local and resident-centered. I'm curious about what they are doing and learning. So far, my conversations have all been with people who work for organizations that have foundation in their name.

Here's a theme that I have spotted. Funders who are up to things that I think of at the innovative edge of philanthropy and resident-centered investing have done some soul searching about who they are at their core. What I'm learning is that these organizations are moving values and practices that most typically define foundation as grantmaker into the backseat. They are putting values and practices that are more closely aligned with a community organizing or civic capacity building organization in the front seat, with grantmaking as one of many tactics that they can use to help things happen.

What I find interesting is that these organizations are doing something different than I've seen dozens of others do over the last twenty-five years. What I've most often seen is funders adding a funding initiative or a new fund or program area to their playbook. These initiatives, funds or program areas are the vehicles that these funders use for their civic engagement, resident engagement, community building or neighborhood revitalization work. The work sits clearly and distinctly in these initiatives, funds and program areas.

I've seen some marvelous work happen through these initiatives, funds and programs. But two things about this approach trouble me.

First, I've seen how vulnerable these funds, programs and initiatives are over time. Initiatives come with a ticking clock of five, ten or fifteen years. They begin with a splash of hope and energy, but often end with a fizzle, leaving everyone - the flag-bearers inside the funding organization, and (worse yet) the target community - discouraged and burned out.

Often you hear initiatives presented in frames of "what we learned" or "what didn't work". That's great, but only if those lessons are actually used. The several volumes of the Aspen Institute's Voices from the Field spelled out the challenges that have been experienced with funder-sponsored place-based initiatives. These publications have had some influence, yet the initiative thing seems to keep on rolling with over-stated promises on the front end, and too much time on the back end spent orchestrating how the funder is going to get out of what they started.

I've seen program areas and funding pools become especially vulnerable when there is a change of leadership at the top or at the program level. When the internal champion for resident-centered work leaves, it often withers on the vine. When a new CEO arrives, there's often a new agenda that scoops up time, energy and small pools of money like those used for small grants programs into something that is deemed more important. I've seen resident-centered values get lost in the shuffle time and time again. I've even seen interesting cases of organizational amnesia, with no organizational memory or residual capacity from an earlier time when the organizational was known for their innovative small grants work. Those conversations really stick in my memory!

Second, I believe that the growth of organized philanthropy and the proliferation of non-profit organizations that we have witnessed in the United States since World War II go hand in hand. That's not surprising since traditional foundation grantmaking is to established non-profit organizations, and as foundations and foundation funding grew, so did the opportunities for the growth of the non-profit sector. As foundation staff and boards became more and more focused on outcomes and sustainability, more and more attention was placed on pushing non-profits to become more business-like and professional. All of this happened with the best of intentions.

But sometimes good intentions come with unintended consequences. I join others in believing that as the non-profit sector expanded and professionalized, the civic space where residents connect, deliberate, problem solve, and contribute changed in character or actually diminished (see Derek Barker's Colonization of Civil Society or John McKnight's The Four Legged Stool). Thus, I believe that a place-based funder that does its work exclusively through partnerships with non-profit organizations is not in a do-no-harm scenario; instead, it is actually reinforcing ideas and systems that keep residents at the margins.

When I see one program of many that is about strengthening citizens, with the rest of what happens there directed to funding, strengthening and professionalizing the non-profit sector in a community, it's easy for my skeptic to begin asking questions about what's really going on. No realization that there is a fourth leg on the stool, per Mcknight? Issue-blindness, with all questions framed within tight issue frameworks? Or so much confidence that non-profits can generate community well-being that work to bring residents into the center is a nice-to-do but non-essential investment?

I'm going over that old ground so you can can see why I pay attention when people within place-based funding organizations tell me their personal and organizational learning journeys have led them to rethink who they are at their core. I believe it is meaningful when they pivot towards a new identity that requires them to rethink how they are approaching their work. This feels very different from adding a new program or a time-limited special initiative. I'm both hopeful, curious and skeptical about this all at the same time.

I'm sharing highlights from notes I took during my first few conversations, flagging what stood out to me about core identity, so you can join me in this journey. These are quotes and near quotes, but I'm intentionally not attaching names and organizations to these quotes. This is because I'm just beginning, with plans to continue calling people and checking myself on dots that I'm connecting whenever possible. It's also because I don't want to label people as trend-setters, suggest models or point to exemplary organizations. My intention is to simply offer snapshots of what people are thinking, trying and learning at the moment, without judgment about whether they have arrived at the answer. I'm interested in the journey into this question of a new organizational identity that better positions the organization to authentically connect with residents and strengthen civic capacity.

Here are quotes and near quotes around the theme of core identity that I found interesting grounding for foundations that aspire to be of and not above the community where they work:

  • We are a community development organization that uses philanthropy as a tool;

  • We strive for power with vs. power over - very different from a philanthropy or another organized charity that is in a superior position [to those that want their money or services];

  • We are committed to having a visible role in the community as a convener and an advocate for social justice.....and we do this because we can (by virtue of our philanthropic endowment), and because this is who we are.

  • We learned that we had to take a hard look at ourselves - who we are and how we are doing our work - and really challenge the ways we were creating power imbalances and marginalization both within and outside of our walls.

  • We're about investment of all of our capitals - moral, human, social, intellectual, reputational, and financial - while stewarding the natural capital in our community, in the interest of a community that works well for everyone. We know that we have to change who we are - our own organizational culture - to be of service to that vision.

  • We are no longer buying the big tent idea - that we have to have a tent that is values neutral and big enough for every donor, every idea, every interest. We want a tent that is grounded in a set of values, with a welcome at the door for different perspectives and healthy debate about how those values will play out in the future.

  • We are values heavy and issues light. Most philanthropies are issue focused, but we believe that people aren't that way.....there is never just one issue. Things are more complex than that. If we focus on issues and not on creating opportunities for people to grapple with the issues that matter to them, we are just creating another set of dependencies.

  • Our mission is to help people envision a different future and pursue it in different ways that make sense to them.

  • We work hard to think more about mission fulfillment than institutional stability.

  • We're questioning whether it's important to receive validation from trade organizations such as the Council on Foundations - such as renewing our community foundations standards certification when the time comes. We are accountable to our community, not a field.

  • We believe that we are part of a community that will get stronger when we develop and nurture a shared culture that is characterized by more openness to new ideas and entrepreneurial possibilities, a community narrative that shows pride in our place, a way of working that is more inclusive and participatory, and a mind shift from "I cannot" to "I can" and "we can do better". That's what we're about.

As I'm writing this, my inner skeptic is telling me that this is just rhetoric and not anything more substantial. My hopeful self knows that words are not enough, and that a shift in core identity has to extend past aspirations and make it into how they do their work. My hopeful side is winning out because I am hearing people talk about really digging in to connect values with practice, even when they hit roadblocks that involve their institution's sacred cows.

These are all organizations that do all of the institutional things that foundations do - and thus can get pulled back into mainstream foundation land at any moment. But maybe, just maybe, a shift in core identity is a key that opens the door for new possibilities about the role they can play in their communities.

If core identity unlocks the door to new possibilities, what does it take for a foundation to walk through that door, connecting what they do with what they aspire to do? I'll share what I'm learning about that on another day.


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